Practice Economics

Laborists, Defined


Last month (see “Hospital-Focused Practice,” Septem-ber 2011, p. 61), I discussed the adoption of the hospitalist model of practice by many specialties, some of the common issues they face, and highlighted a national meeting to examine this phenomenon (for more information on the meeting, visit www.hospitalmedicine/hfpm). This month, relying mostly on my own experience with this practice model, I’ll drill deeper into OB hospitalists (also known as laborists). While there are a lot of ways in which hospitalist practice in many specialties are the same, laborists differ from those in other fields in important and interesting ways.


One of the most informative sources about the “laborist movement” is, a website started and managed by Dr. Rob Olson, an enterprising laborist in Bellingham, Wash. As of July, the site listed 132 laborist programs nationwide (and that figure likely underestimates the actual number in operation). A survey of registered users of the website in April yielded 106 responses, representing a 24% response rate. Seventy-five of the respondents indicated they were full-time laborists.

Unique Drivers

Because obstetric malpractice costs are so high, and many lawsuits are related to delayed response to obstetric emergencies, there is hope (not much hard proof yet) that outcomes will be better, and lawsuits less common or less costly.1 So the hope of reduced malpractice costs figures more prominently into the cost-benefit analysis of the OB hospitalist model than most other types of HM practice.

Financial Model

It appears that all hospitalist models require financial support over and above professional fee revenue. Hospitals usually are willing (happy?) to provide this money because they can make back even more as a result of increased patient volume/market share or lower costs. And, as is the case for hospitalists in other specialties, laborist presence can be an asset in recruitment and retention of other OBGYNs.

In most settings, the laborist submits a charge for delivery only for unassigned patients. For those patients who “belong to” another OB who provided prenatal care, it is often most practical for that doctor to submit the global fee for prenatal care and delivery, and to pay the laborist program an agreed-upon rate for each service provided.

I think the most interesting feature of laborist practice is that in many settings, it has the potential to open new sources of revenue—both hospital “facility fee” and professional fee revenue. A common practice in many hospitals is for obstetricians to send patients, or for them to self-present, to labor and delivery to be checked for a cold, vomiting, or whether labor has started. Many times, a nurse performs these checks, communicates with a doctor, then discharges the patient—and no bill is generated. An on-site laborist can see the same patients (presumably making for a higher-quality visit for the patient) and, assuming the visit is medically necessary, both a facility and professional charge can be submitted. Revenue from such visits can go a long way toward making up the difference between the total cost of the laborist program and fee collections. This adds to patient safety, as each patient is evaluated in person by a physician rather than only a nurse.

In most settings, the laborist submits a charge for delivery only for unassigned patients. For those patients who “belong to” another OB who provided prenatal care, it is often most practical for that doctor to submit the global fee for prenatal care and delivery, and to pay the laborist program an agreed-upon rate for each service provided.


Laborists often are paid an hourly rate, and they typically don’t have a salary component tied to work relative-value unit (wRVU) production or other productivity metrics. Total annual compensation is typically lower than private-practice OBGYN physicians. It also varies widely, depending on local market forces, job description, and workload. Most programs are trying to implement meaningful quality bonuses for laborists.

Scope of Practice

Laborists typically provide care to all unassigned patients who present to labor and delivery, and perform deliveries, C-sections, and other services on patients when requested by OBs in traditional practice. Requests arise when an OB simply needs to be relieved of being on call for their private patients, or when an emergency arises. (These “as-needed” referrals are different from the most common arrangement for “medical hospitalist” practices that ask other doctors to refer all or none of their patients, not just when they are otherwise occupied.)

Lastly, the laborist might serve as surgical assistant to other OBGYNs. In nearly all settings, there is no need to require that any physicians refer to the laborist, and the other OBs are free to decide when to refer.

A reasonably common scenario is that, to avoid disruption of scheduled office hours, an OB in traditional practice might ask that the laborist manage a patient who presents in labor. But if still undelivered at the close of office hours, the traditional OB might assume care from that point on or have the laborist remain responsible through delivery. The traditional OB usually will make post-partum “rounding” visits on all of their patients but could rely on the laborist for these visits.

In most cases, the laborist does not have any scheduled gynecologic procedures, though he or she may see GYN consults throughout the hospital as time permits. Laborists typically have no outpatient responsibilities, but some OBGYN hospitalists cover GYN in the ED.

Operational Structure

Although models vary significantly, the single most common arrangement is for laborists to work 24-hour, in-house shifts. Rarely is there a need or justification to have more than one laborist on at a time. For a single physician, seven or eight 24-hour shifts per month is considered full-time. My experience is that most laborists are employed by the hospital in which they work.

As is the case in every specialty, some large OBGYN groups adopt a rotating laborist model, in which one member of their group becomes the laborist for 24 hours at a time, during which they are relieved of all other responsibilities.

Recruitment shows that, as of July, 40 of the 132 laborist programs that had identified themselves on the site were recruiting. My experience is that unlike “medical hospitalist” practices, which tend to successfully recruit those very early in their career, or “surgical hospitalist” programs, which target mid- to late-career general surgeons, laborist candidates come from any point in their careers. Most programs prefer that a laborist has several years of post-residency experience, but they generally have no other preference.

Dr. Nelson has been a practicing hospitalist since 1988 and is cofounder and past president of SHM. He is a principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants, a national hospitalist practice management consulting firm ( He is course codirector and faculty for SHM’s “Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program” course. This column represents his views and is not intended to reflect an official position of SHM.


  1. Clark SL, Belfort MA, Dildy GA, Meyers JA. Reducing obstetric litigation through alterations in practice patterns. Obstet Gynecol. 2008;112(6):1279-1283.

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